In our UFC on Fuel 10 staff predictions, I made no bones about the fact that I have never been impressed by Thiago Silva. His crushing defeat to Alexander Gustafsson and dull performance against Stanislov Nedkov fresh in my mind, I fully expected a dangerous, well-rounded fighter like Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante to wipe the floor with him.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Certainly, Feijao had some shining moments in the only round of their Fight of the Night clash, but it was clear from the bell that we were seeing a very different Thiago Silva from the one who spent three rounds walking into the jabs and uppercuts of Alexander Gustafsson. Instead it was Silva with the jab and combination punches, patiently absorbing the early onslaught of Feijao and coming back to win in spectacular fashion. Brief though it was, this fight proved just how effective the fundamental tools of boxing can be.
HEAD MOVEMENT & THE DOUBLE FOREARM GUARD
To truly appreciate Thiago's success against Feijao, it behooves us to look back just two fights to his bout with Alexander Gustafsson. That night the cold-eyed Brazilian did very little that could be called good striking. Mostly, he just opted to sling single power shots at Gustafsson, who frustrated him and kept him out of range using his jab. Thiago seemed determined to get inside on Gustafsson simply by walking him down, using his high guard to absorb damage and unload one vicious right hand or left hook once he'd entered range. Walking forward, occasionally swaying rhythmically back-and-forth before lunging forward with power punches, Silva seemed to be doing a poor imitation of Mike Tyson. But the Brazilian's head movement was perfunctory at best and, like Iron Mike himself in his later years, he forgot that Tyson possessed a stellar jab, and used it often.
1. Silva inches toward Gustafsson, bobbing his head back and forth as if to make himself a difficult target--
2. --but covers up and ducks his head the moment Gustafsson threatens him with a strike.
Thiago would do this time after time, inching forward only to leap away and cover up every time that Gustafsson even thought about hitting him. Much like Shogun, his sudden flashes of side-to-side head movement were really just for show, as any attempt to make the opponent miss went out the window once fists started flying.
Though it really is the best method of defense, good head movement is not a necessity for effective striking. There are plenty of very successful strikers who choose to block punches rather than dodging them. The key to success with this approach is to use the opportunity created by a successful block. Rampage Jackson, in his highlight reel knockout of Wanderlei Silva (GIF), not only blocked Wanderlei's punches, but utilized the opening created by his block to land a clean left hook on Wanderlei's jaw. Not only did his block leave Wanderlei open, it loaded up the punch that put him away. Thiago did very little of this against Gustafsson. Instead, he held a high tight guard that not only failed to cover his whole head while leaving his torso entirely open, but also blinded him to the attacks and movements of his opponent. He would only lower his guard to attack when Gustafsson had mercifully backed away, or when several hard punches had already sneaked through his defense.
The double forearm guard still made a few appearances against Feijao, but Silva seemed much more determined to make Feijao miss, and then punish him for missing, as you'll see below.
DISTANCE CONTROL & PRESSURE
It cannot be said enough: the jab is the most important punch in boxing. It is likewise one of the most important skills in MMA. A good jab can do so much to turn the tide of a fight in your favor, and a bad one (or nonexistent one) can leave you lying on the canvas, wondering what dropped you.
In a way, the jab was the deciding factor of this fight, and marked a huge change in Thiago's approach to striking. In 15 minutes against Gustafsson, Silva threw a mere 18 jabs. Of those, very few were actually part of combinations, and half were only thrown in the last six minutes of the fight. To contrast, Thiago threw 22 jabs in less than five minutes against Feijao last weekend, and that's only counting the ones thrown with bad intentions. He also showed that he learned something from his bout with Gustafsson, occasionally throwing the same pawing jab that the Mauler used so well against him to measure the distance and set up kicks and punches.
1. Thiago Silva stands toe to toe with Feijao. Pay careful attention to the positioning of the two fighters' feet in this frame--more on that in a bit.
2. As Feijao circles, Silva presses him, using a pawing jab to keep his opponent at range. I like Silva's stance here, head off-center, his left hand a constant threat. His stance presents an invisible wall, and Feijao has no easy way through.
3. Feijao leaps forward with a straight right and Thiago falls back on his trusty high guard. This time, however, he is prepared to counter when Feijao's punch glances off his forearm, even pivoting away from the strike as he blocks.
4. With Feijao completely out of position, Silva spies an opportunity and stings him with a right hand, followed by a hard straight left.
Though it wasn't the prettiest punch, this sequence spelled the beginning of the end for Feijao. After being caught by this counter, he became noticeably less confident in his ability to close the distance using his speed. Instead he began trying to set up his shots, but Silva wasn't having it. Hard as it would have been for me to believe before this fight, Thiago was actually beating Feijao, jab for jab. Aside from a flashy spinning elbow, Cavalcante was clearly starting to run out of ideas (and gas) after the two minute mark.
Above, I pointed out Silva's foot positioning. Now let's compare that same still to one from the Gustafsson fight.
Against Feijao, Silva is potently facing his opponent. His lead foot, and consequently his left hand, are threatening the line that runs down the center of Feijao's body. Feijao will have a very hard time closing the distance without first creating an angle to get past that lead foot and jab. On the right, we can see how different this is from Thiago's positioning against Gustafsson. He is much more square to his opponent in this frame, his lead foot pointing off to Gustafsson's right. From here, it is clear that he intends to throw a lead right hand or left hook, but he will have a hard time getting past the jab of the quicker, better-positioned Gustafsson.
It's a small change, but it made a huge difference Saturday night. Landing power punches should be every striker's goal, but without first pressing the opponent's center, openings are hard to come by. Measured, constant pressure is the name of the game, and the best course of action for a slugger like Thiago Silva. For proof, let's take a look at the finishing sequence. Here's a GIF, too--Thiago's made such improvements to his footwork and combination punching, it really deserves to be seen in motion.
1. Silva has backed the tired Feijao up to the fence, and moves to engage him with his left-hand side trained on Feijao's center line.
2. As he jabs, however, he steps off-line, giving himself an inside angle. Feijao, sensitive now to Thiago's jab, covers up to block it, unprepared for the angled attack that the jab served to disguise.
3. A right hand is followed by a left hook, the punch that really stuns Feijao. His eyes take on a thousand-yard stare as Silva's left hand catches him across the chin, and everything that follows is just icing.
4. A couple more punches leave Feijao defending with animal instinct alone, and he ducks his head straight into a nasty right uppercut that floors him.
It is symbolic of Thiago's progression as a striker that he was able to defeat Feijao by cleverly exploiting his tendency to hold a static high guard. It is also symbolic, perhaps, that he finished the dangerous Muay Thai stylist with the most textbook of boxing combinations, the 1-2-3, executed with precision and loads of that fearsome power that Silva has always possessed.
Though I doubted Silva before this bout, I am now convinced that he is a far more clever fighter than I ever realized, and with these new changes to his style, he is poised to become a force in the light heavyweight division once again. Maybe it was the rise of another hard-hitting Jiu Jitsu ace in Glover Teixeira that lit a fire under Thiago and prompted him to make these improvements, or maybe he has finally recovered from his old injuries to the point that he can finally start to progress technically. Whatever the reason, I daresay that the Thiago Silva we saw last weekend could give a tough fight to almost anyone in the division, and I daresay he's made me a fan.
Now, about that post-fight drug test... Fingers crossed!